Wednesday, 3 May 2017

'The secret, bestial peace!'

The other night I caught a programme on BBC4 called Amsterdam: An Art Lover's Guide - rather good it was, and very watchable. At one point, the presenter Alastair Sooke, touring the Rijksmuseum, briefly admired the Vermeers, then noted that they shared the room with works by another Dutch painter, one who, he seemed to suggest, was seriously underrated outside his native Holland. This was Jan Steen, painter of innumerable genre scenes, many of them portraying drunkenness and cheerful depravity in taverns. A Man Blowing Smoke at a Drunken Woman - the National Gallery's one Steen - is typical, though Steen's canvases tend to be more densely populated with drunks and revellers.
 The Dutch affection for Jan Steen's works is probably, well, a Dutch thing, and his loud, rambunctious works certainly have almost nothing in common with Vermeer's enigmatic masterpieces. It was surely the likes of Jan Steen that Larkin had in mind when he wrote his 1970 sonnet The Card Players, a crudely comic evocation of the 17th-century Dutch tavern world, and a kind of celebration of shameless maleness and hog-whimpering drunkenness...

Jan van Hogspuew staggers to the door
And pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
And holds a cinder to his clay with tongs,
Belching out smoke. Old Prijck snores with the gale,
His skull face firelit; someone behind drinks ale,
And opens mussels, and croaks scraps of songs
Towards the ham-hung rafters about love.
Dirk deals the cards. Wet century-wide trees
Clash in surrounding starlessness above
This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!